"Forgiving Others Frees Us"

November 18, 2007 Mt.18:21-35 (Eph.4:30-32)

Ambivalence about Anger

A man who was a regular churchgoer in a faraway town had had enough of what he perceived to be an injustice against his son in a particular youth organization. From what he'd heard, the leader was almost picking on his boy, segregating him from his peers in a way that made him feel inferior. One day on main street he happened to see the youth leader across the road. His nostrils suddenly flared and he charged across the street like a Mack truck, cheeks flushed, veins standing out on his neck like little subcutaneous pipelines. Did he give that leader a piece of his mind! He never once stopped to get the other person's account of what happened. He just unloaded like a hydraulic gravel truck, then turned and walked on up the street, while his blood pressure gradually returned to sub-stratospheric levels.

Meanwhile, the youth leader had stopped in her tracks. She seemed completely baffled by what had just happened. That wasn't the whole story at all. If only she'd had an opportunity to explain what had really happened.

Two other people were standing outside the post office a few metres away from where the confrontation took place. One - an agnostic - said to the other, "Doesn't that man go to your church?" The other person reluctantly agreed - and searched for words that might manage some sort of recovery for the reputation of Christ in the public square. But those words were hard to find; to all appearances, it seemed these people who called themselves 'Christians' could be most un-Christlike.

Is it acceptable to be angry? Is there some spiritual danger in it? What does it have to do with bitterness and resentment? We may have heard sermons about Ephesians 4:26, "Be angry, and yet do not sin - do not let the sun go down on your anger." Conventional sermons usually concede that anger is normal, healthy, and okay for Christians; the main thing is not to let it linger, hence the one-day curfew.

I was listening to a Pastor to Pastor audio CD recently in which HB London was interviewing Dr Henry Blackaby (of Experiencing God fame). Dr Blackaby made a very forthright, unqualified statement that rather shocked me. He said, "Anger is sin." Really? Didn't he mean it's a sin if you let it fester and go on without resolution? No, he said very simply, "Anger is sin." Just like that.

Dr Blackaby is one of those Christians I regard very highly, sort of a 'saint' in evangelical terms, right up there with Billy Graham - they're unusually holy. For him to say this got me digging.

Be Careful Whom You Consult

Look up 'anger' in the subject index of the Life Application Bible and you'll find it has an entry, "Jesus' anger toward money changers", referring to Mt 21:12. The commentary says, '[The money changers'] commercialism in God's house frustrated people's attempts at worship. This, of course, greatly angered Jesus." However, Mt 21:12 says NOTHING about Jesus being angry when He drove out the merchants and overturned the tables.

Down a bit in the index headings we find, "Anger - when it is appropriate." A reference is Jn 2:15-16. The commentary states with an authoritative tone, "Jesus was obviously angry at the merchants who exploited those who had come to worship. There is a difference between uncontrolled rage and righteous indignation - yet both are called anger. We must be very careful how we use the powerful emotion of anger. It is right to be angry about injustice and sin; it is wrong to be angry over trivial personal offenses." Well, there you have it; doesn't that sound thoughtful, reasonable, and educated? Except that Jn 2:15-16 does not say one thing about Jesus being 'angry' when he cleared the temple! Hmm - do we have some sloppy 'eisogesis' here, reading things into the text? It's always a danger that we may try to impose modern human philosophy on God's revealed truth.

Divine Anger at Human Unbelief

What does the New Testament actually teach about anger? A search for "anger" or "angry" brings up 21 references. In only ONE of them is Jesus said to be angry - Mk 3:5, watched by religious accusers in the synagogue looking for an excuse to charge him with healing on the Sabbath: "He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand."" Makes sense for the Lord to be angry on account of human stubbornness and resistance to believe.

The references in Romans and Hebrews speak of God's wrath and anger against those who are self-seeking, reject truth, and follow evil. God's wrath is very prominent in the book of Revelation, punishing sinners who refuse to believe despite repeated warnings (Rom 2:8; Heb 3:10f, 17, 4:3). But what about ordinary people? Is it OK for us to be angry? Is Ephesians 4:26 the main emphasis, not letting the sun go down on your anger?

Get Rid of It!

Here are the pertinent remaining references: Mt 5:22, But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Wo! Straight from the Lord's lips in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.) 2Co 12:20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be...I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. (Notice how anger isn't singled out in a separate category, as if it might sometimes be excused.) Eph 4:31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (Again, no distinction) Col 3:8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 1Ti 2:8 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. Jas 1:19f My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

Well! 6 references to the effect that anger is something believers should "get rid of", resist, avoid, that it actually makes a person 'subject to judgment'. But if God and Jesus can get angry (though it's only mentioned ONCE for Jesus), why can't we?

Note well that James reference - literally, "Man's anger does not bring about God's righteousness." It's one thing for the Lord of all the universe, Judge of the nations, to show anger and wrath in pronouncing judgment; we are accountable to Him. It's something else altogether for us to be angry at another human. We're not their boss; we don't own them.

Right of Revenge Reassigned

Just before Eph 4:31 which tells us to "get rid of all" anger, v30 says: "And do not GRIEVE the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." Sealing and redemption have to do with new ownership - we are God's; anger at a fellow-human "grieves" His Spirit, because we're presuming a right - an authority or accountability over - we really don't have. "Christ did not come to give us our rights - He came to take away our wrongs."

When we get angry with someone, it makes us want to attack them; adrenaline is the 'fight or flight' hormone. The natural outcome of hurt is anger; anger makes us want to 'pay back' the wrong that was done. Revenge.Get even.

Bitterness and resentment call out, "But I have a RIGHT to be angry!" Do we really? On a human level, quite possibly. Justice involves compensation for harm done. But on a spiritual level - our 'rights' have been superseded. When we are crucified with Christ, adopted as legal heirs into God's heavenly family, our new Father takes over all claim we might have had on 'payback'.

This is very clear in Romans 12: v14, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." How hard is that! The thousands of persecuted believers around the globe are commanded not to demonstrate anger, but blessing, toward the regimes and ridiculers who make life miserable for them.

V17, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil." Instead, 21 says, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." No payback! Did you get the message yet? If not, here it is again in v19: "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." That's it! God's responsibility for us and redemption of us relieves us of the right to pay back wrongs; now HE's the One who will look after all that; He knows the whole story.

If someone hurts us and we feel ourselves starting to get angry, we're forgetting something: God's part of the picture. Anger, bitterness, and resentment take the matter into our own hands, leaving God out of it - 'we're quite ready to look after this on our own, thank you very much; where are the baseball bats?' Instead, as those born again who are 'in Christ', we are commanded to turn it over to our heavenly Father to deal with; let Him settle the score. Our part is to pray for those who are 'doing it to us'. Re-direct the pain to Jesus, who is waiting to comfort you and be your champion - for His glory.

Note: if you're in an abusive relationship, this is not a 'life sentence' to unending violence; separation may be called for, in hopes that the abuser will come to their senses, repent, and get help. That's something the Lord must show you. But it would definitely be wrong to retaliate for the sake of 'getting even'.

New Community, New Emphases

The parable of the unforgiving, unmerciful, ungrateful servant is one of those classic vivid parables of Jesus that are so memorable and so significant. Its context is Matthew 18, a chapter about relationships in the new faith-community to be called the church, an encapsulation of the Kingdom. Notice 3 things about this chapter. It takes sin seriously: vv6-9, better to enter eternal life without certain members of our body that tempt us to sin (Jesus seems to be exaggerating to make a point). The chapter extols GRACE as even greater than sin: vv12-14, the shepherd leaves the 99 - risking the safety of the whole flock out there on the hills - to go hunting for the one silly wilful lamb that wandered off. And, the chapter sees RELATIONSHIPS as mattering ultimately, in a realm beyond the merely human; how we treat one another has eternal repercussions. V5 if we welcome another in Jesus' name, we welcome Jesus Himself; v18 what we bind or loose here on this plane is simultaneously bound or loosed in heaven; v20, where 2 or 3 gather in His name, Jesus is there with them; and v35 at the very end, how we treat others determines how God treats us. So sin, grace, and relationships are keenly important in the new community of the church.

Exploding Conventions of Consideration

The parable is offered in response to an honest question. Jesus has been talking in v15 about what to do if a brother or sister sins against us. Peter asks in v21 how many times he has to forgive someone repeatedly sinning against him - perhaps 7 times? Peter was probably thinking he was being extra gracious; the Talmud (contemporary Jewish teaching) taught you only had to forgive someone like that THREE times. But Peter hasn't gone near far enough. Jesus says, "not seven times, but 77 times" (or 490 times: the text is kind of ambiguous): ie, innumerable times - give up the counting, already! So the Saviour is exploding conventional assumptions about forgiveness.

Extraordinary Grace for Extreme Debt

Jesus proceeds to say (v23) the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. "It's payback time! Pay up or pack up!" His guards haul in this squandering idiot who owes ten thousand talents, in the order of millions of dollars. Just for comparison, the total imperial taxes at the time for the countries of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria added up to only 600 talents - and this bloke owes 10,000? What a joke! It's obvious he can't pay it back. The usual order would be for him to be sold to repay the debt, as allowed in the law of Moses (Ex 22:3; Lev 25:39; 2Kings 4:1). Here's where the unexpected happens. The man falls on his knees before the king, begging for patience, promising he'd pay it all back - as if he could! It would be comic if it weren't so pathetic. But, for some unexplained reason, something about the servant's appeal catches the king's attention and - whaddaya know - he writes off the whole humongous debt! The exchequer's not going to be happy about that one. But the king's the king! V27, "The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go."

Absurd Anger at a Minimal Amount

Now it gets really weird. This recently-written-off scoundrel who's such an abysmal money manager goes out and happens to bump into a guy who owes him only a hundred denarii - a small amount, like 20 bucks. He starts to throttle the guy, demanding, "Pay back what you owe me!" Literally, "IF you owe me" - he doesn't even seem to know the exact amount. The other man begs for more time using almost exactly the same words the first servant used in pleading before the king. But to no avail: the lender chucks the debtor in prison until the money can be somehow extracted from his hide. Here's the puzzling thing: how could a man who had just, with his wife and kids, been released from an obligation of millions of dollars, get so worked up about a mere 20? Is he nuts? Can't he see how incongruous, how out of whack it is to sue someone for next to nothing when you've just been forgiven a debt the size of a good-sized multinational corporation yourself?

Locked Away for Tortured Pay

Notice now the reaction of the bystanders. V31, "When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened." Curious sidenote: the Greek for 'distressed' comes from the same root (sorrowful, grieved) as what the Holy Spirit feels when believers mess up in Ephesians 4:30, "and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God..." (by being bitter, angry, etc.) When the king hears about it, he lambasts the heartless servant, throwing the book at him: "You wicked servant - I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" In other words, 'I showed you mercy - unthinkably great release - wasn't it much more necessary and fitting for you to have mercy on this other person who owed you such a tiny amount by comparison?' There's nothing to be said.

V34, In anger (appropriate anger, if God the ultimate judge is who the king represents) - in anger the master turns the twit over to the jailers (according to the lexicon, "one who elicits truth by the use of the rack") to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. Read, "never"! This is perpetual pain we're talking about. His poor flesh will be destroyed by the whips before the debt could ever be paid back.

Now, hear carefully what Jesus adds at the end here: "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Yikes! Did He really mean that? Doesn't Jesus know what mean things people do to each other? But it's not a copyist's mistake; Jesus did say that. In fact right after the Lord's Prayer He said, "But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Mt 6:15)

Anger and resentment and revenge are not options for those who call themselves Christians. Those sorts of things only give Satan opportunity to bring destruction in our lives. Don't put up a wall or go for the 'pound of flesh' you may be owed. Instead as Eph 4:32 says, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you."

Praying and Repenting to Overcome Bitterness

John Regier tells this story of a woman who resisted the temptation to become angry and bitter, opting for grace instead.

Sue grew up in a home filled with conflict. As a child she felt, "If only I did everything right, maybe Mom and Dad would begin to love me." When her mom went to work outside the home, she left eight-year-old Sue to clean the house, cook the meals and care for her younger brother. No matter how hard she worked, it was never enough to please her mother, who went out of her way to find things to blame on Sue.

Once, when depressed, her mom put a gun to her own head, but then turned it away, firing a shot that almost hit Sue. Another time, Sue came home to find her mother with another man. She was shocked, disillusioned and afraid. Eventually, her parents divorced despite all she tried to do to keep them together.

As an adult, Sue was a nervous woman who would often wake at 4:30 am, thinking of all she needed to do that day. Anxiety and depression began to overwhelm her because she could never live up to her own expectations. Her life changed when she met a committed young Christian named Bill. They were married after a brief courtship. However, within a few months it became evident that Bill had a moral problem that kept him from emotionally loving his wife. As a boy, he'd become addicted to pornographic material...The moral failure in Bill's life caused him to use his wife rather than cherish her, which increased the pain Sue carted from childhood and drove her more deeply into guilt and depression.

Sue listed all of the bitterness she had inside from her childhood and identified the emotional pain it had created. As she prayed, the emotional pain was overwhelming, causing her to weep uncontrollably. As she opened up and shared with Jesus the hurt she was feeling, He brought a simple thought to her mind, "I was there when you were not loved." He also reminded her of a verse from Scripture, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." Peace flooded over the pain and, for the first time, Sue felt permission to relax and enjoy her relationships. She didn't have to be perfect in order to please others.

In prayer, she was able to forgive her mother, father, and husband for the damage they had done to her through the long years of abuse. For two hours she dealt with individual issues and faced the emotional scars she bore. She asked God to bring healing to her broken heart and to change her negative thoughts. As she prayed, she began to experience a freedom she had never known in her life. Her husband repented and began to show a new sympathy and concern. They emotionally united as never before, and began to experience a new peace, fresh hope, and a love that had been missing for over 20 years.

Let's pray.